With construction starting in 1969 and ending in just three short years, the 48-story building was San Francisco’s tallest structure for decades.
The San Francisco Transamerica Pyramid building is an icon of local architecture — on par with the Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower, and (*clutches pearls*) now Salesforce Tower. For 46 years, the 850-foot-tall traffic cone positioned in the Financial District existed as the tallest structure in the city, surpassed only by Salesforce Tower once it was completed in 2018. (Though, unlike the latter skyscraper, the former is one of nearly 40 San Francisco high-rises vulnerable to sizable earthquakes, due to a weak, faulted welding technique used throughout the Transamerica Pyramid’s skeleton.)
Love thus July 1971 picture looking down Columbus in San Francisco. So many iconic buildings: City Lights, Sentinel Building/Columbus Tower, unfinished Transamerica Pyramid. I worked at this exact spot (across the street) for many years. pic.twitter.com/mi6aAQuH5L
— Christian Christensen (@ChrChristensen) August 19, 2023
Like many things with San Francisco roots, the sheer existence of the Transamerica Pyramid was rooted in controversy. The building, itself, exists as a physical intersectionality — a convergence of San Francisco’s Chinatown, North Beach, Telegraph Hill, and the Financial District neighborhoods. However, as symbolic as the latter-mentioned structure is, the 3,000-window building sits on sacred ground… that once served as an antithesis to the very building that now sits on it.
In 1853, predominantly workers created a massive building on this plot of land, which was later known as Montgomery Block. For decades, the building and subsequent neighborhood became synonymous with writers, sculptors, and other artistic vocations; the area also was crucial in honing contemporary journalism that was birthed in the 1860s. According to KQED, Ina Coolbrith, who was California’s first poet laureate, even had her origins within Montgomery Block.
Fast forward over a century later, and the Transamerica Pyramid building would be erected to largely house financial services companies, specifically those concerned with insurance around expensive assets and investment portfolios — types of business that still have offices within the building today, in addition to a collection of consulting firms.
The building’s mere existence sits as a stark contrast to these hallowed grounds. Quite frankly, it marks an early example of gentrification in San Francisco.
Nevertheless, the Transamerica Pyramid remains a steadfast part of San Francisco’s skyline, as well as its architectural persona. So it’s only natural that a recent image uploaded to X by user [at]ChrChristensen, shows the earlier years of the building’s construction — a baby picture, if you will
Moreover: The captured still — (which, TBD on the original source, so if anyone serendipitously has that information, please leave a comment below) — shows other San Francisco landmarks in their infancy, like City Lights Books. The SF’s Sentinel Building is also featured, but that completed construction in 1907… so it was well into its 64 years on this mortal coil when this picture was taken in 1971. Keen eyes will also spot the old signage for the still-running comedy club, the Purple Onion.
Oddly, it’s hard to find many other pictures of the Transamerica Pyramid in its construction. But a dive through OpenSFHistory does show some of the building in its early days after construction was complete, and you can scroll through our favorites below.
Feature image: Courtesy of X via [at]ChrChristensen